Four environmental groups threaten lawsuit over Brunner Island

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

The Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association and three other environmental groups have threatened to sue the owners of Brunner Island Power Plant in York Haven, alleging the coal-fired plant is violating the Clean Water Act by discharging toxic pollutants into the Susquehanna River.

Riverkeeper Ted Evgeniadis, the Environmental Integrity Project, the Waterkeeper Alliance and PennEnvironment maintain coal ash is contaminating groundwater as well as the river, which is a source of drinking water in the region.

Brunner Island is a coal-fired power plant owned by Talen Energy. Evgeniadis said it's been running since 1961.

Environmental groups claim this pipe, near the Brunner Island Power Plant, is illegally dumping toxins directly into Black Gut Creek

"We have 50-plus years of coal ash and other contaminants on the site," he said at a news conference near the plant on Wednesday, Aug. 29.

Messages left with two Talen Energy spokesmen were not returned Wednesday.

'Very high' levels? According to Evegeniadis, the levels of those contaminants exceed allowable limits and are very high. He said Talen Energy must fix the issues so they don't adversely affect public health.

"It's something that needs to be done," he told reporters. "It has to happen now."

Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna River Keeper, has filed a notice of intent to sue against Talen Energy for Clean Water Act violations, Wednesday, August 29, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello photo

Toxins include carcinogens and heavy metals, he said.

The groups allege an unpermitted pipe is discharging pollutants directly into Black Gut Creek, which is a tributary of the Susquehanna.

They also allege that two coal-ash bins at Brunner Island are unlined and leaching toxins into the groundwater, which then contaminates the river, according to documents provided to The York Dispatch by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, a legal advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

A third coal-ash bin is lined but malfunctioning, the groups allege.

Tom Pelton, spokesman for the Environmental Integrity Project, said Brunner Island Power Plant creates about 400,000 tons of coal-ash waste per year.

'Enough is enough': Pelton maintains the bins are on an island in the Susquehanna and that if they fail, all that toxic waste could end up in the river.

"Statewide and federally, there's been decades of negligence on the issue of coal-ash pollution," he said. "Enough is enough."

A news release from the group states: “In the event of a breach, there is nothing but an earthen berm to keep over three million tons of ash and related coal wastes from entering the Susquehanna River and Black Gut Creek."

According to Pelton, the plant exceeded permitted levels of toxins about 20 percent of the time over the past five years.

Evgeniadis said the pipe that discharges into Black Gut Creek is, in effect, a mystery pipe. That's because all discharge pipes are required to be permitted by the goverment, and that one isn't, he said.

Arsenic allegedly found: He said he's tested water samples taken from areas around the pipe, both upstream and downstream, and found that concentrations of pollutants were significantly higher downstream — especially levels of arsenic, which is known to cause cancer, he said.

The power plant is equipped to run on natural gas and could do that instead, Evgeniadis said. Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal.

In addition to cleaning up the purported toxic leaks, the plant also could install new technology and infrastructure to help reduce the amount of pollutants in discharges, he said.

Pelton said that on Wednesday, the groups notified the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection and Talen Energy of the groups' plans to sue Talen if changes aren't made within 60 days.

Clean Water Act: The groups claim the alleged discharge violates the federal Clean Water Act by introducing arsenic, boron, sulfate and lithium into  the groundwater and into Black Gut Creek.

The Environmental Integrity Project’s director, Mary Greene, has called Brunner Island “a poster child for the public health hazards posed by coal ash dumps across the country,” according to a news release from Pelton.

Samples of surface water and groundwater around the plant showed high levels of toxic metals and other pollutants “that could only be explained by leakage from the coal ash dumps,” according to the release.

In 2016, the federal Environmental Protection Agency imposed coal-ash regulations that require companies to monitor and publicly report contamination of groundwater by coal-ash landfills and ponds, according to the news release.

Those regulations required that liners be installed on new ash dumps to prevent leakage, according to the environmental groups.

In July, President Donald Trump's administration issued new proposed regulations that would "roll back" the new rules, the news release states.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.